scenes

Tips for World Building in Fiction

I was surprised during our weekly Writers in the Grove free Monday workshop meeting that some of my fellow members didn’t know about the concept of world building in writing.

When you write fiction, you create a world, literally. It may represent the real world or a fantasy world. It consists of scenes, places where events occur in your story.

Your fictional world is made up of places, people, cultures, traditions, habits and routines, weather, geology, current events, and politics.

I’m working on a story that takes place in 1979. I begin my world building by researching historical events in 1979, then branch into newsworthy stories and topics, and even some trivia. If my story is concentrated solely in the United States, and specifically a location, say Seattle, then most of my research would focus on what happened in Seattle in and around 1979. Here are some of the results of my web search.

Sony Walkman - OriginalIn my research, I discover that the average income that year in the United States was $17,500, and the average monthly rent was $280, a far cry from today’s prices. A gallon of gas cost 86 cents, oil was $24 a barrel, and the Toyota Corolla was one of the most popular cars on the road and the $200 Sony Walkman was in demand by most teenagers and college students. Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” album won awards and played out of boomboxes everywhere, blasting “Y.M.C.A.” by The Village People off the charts. The daily news included updates on Voyager 1 as it made its closest pass by Jupiter, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the Moral Majority religious movement by Jerry Falwell, 63 American hostages taken in Iran, and Saddam Hussein becoming president of Iraq. John McEnroe, Tracy Austin, Bjorn Borg, and Martinia Navratilova became household names as tennis champions. We watched MASH, The Jeffersons, The Dukes of Hazzard, One Day at a Time, and Three’s Company on television. The big screen played Alien, All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now, Start Trek: The Motion Picture, Norma Rae, The China Syndrome, Being There, Life of Brian, Mad Max, and the Muppet Movie.

If you are writing about 1979, this is the world your characters lived in. They listened to that music, watched that news, those movies, and said funny things like quotes from movies and television such as “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins” (Brooke Shields ad for Calvin Klein), “Reach out and touch someone” (AT&T ad), “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” (Apocalypse Now), and “You need this for your rent, boy” (Richard Pryor).

Cultural stories might filter into conversations or even the thoughts of your characters such as when then-President Jimmy Carter explained how he almost tipped when an enraged swamp rabbit swam toward his fishing boat, or comment on the first time a milk carton featured a picture of a missing child. Or the fears that swept the globe as NASA’s Skylab fell to Earth, landing in Australia, made fun of afterwards by many when the Shire of Esperance in Western Australia fined NASA $400 for littering. Or maybe how Charles Manson sent a Monopoly “Get Out of Jail Free” card in a humorous attempt to be released by the parole board. Or maybe the dinner table discussion that night might be about the work of Mother Teresa after she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Starbucks Coffee Store downtown SeattleThe world your characters live in influences their personalities, behaviors, even habits. A worker in 1979 living and/or working in downtown Seattle would have made sure they made a swing by Starbucks at 1912 Pike Place for a cup of their soon-to-be-famous coffee.

Now think about your characters and their relationship to this place and this time. Are all of your characters from here? Or maybe one or more of them are from different places, creating conflict when their worlds come together such as a white woman from Seattle falling in love with a black man from Mississippi in 1958, or the reverse. What about a new immigrant from Europe or Africa landing on the shores of the United States or Canada in the 1800s? Or maybe you have a person from Germany finding their way in Alabama in 1943 at the height of World War II? When we travel, we bring our worlds with us no matter where we go.

Your story may begin in any time and place. The world existed for your characters before the start of your story, and they might survive your story. Reveal the world they live in, as well as the world of history and experiences they carry with them through your story, to your readers as they shake hands and get to know your characters.

Here are a list of questions to help you define the world in which your characters live.

  • Why are your characters here?
  • How did your characters get here?
  • Why here now?
  • What makes this place special to the character(s)?
  • What makes this time necessary to the character(s)?
  • What’s important in this place and time?
  • What is it about this place that welcomes your characters?
  • What is about this place that challenges your characters?
  • What is about this place that creates conflict in or between your characters?
  • How is this place different from other places, and how does it matter to your characters?
  • What’s the weather like? Now and seasonally?
  • What’s the landscape, geology, terrain?
  • Is it crowded with buildings, people, or things? Or wide open and spacious, distance between buildings, people, and things?
  • What does it sound like here?
  • What does it feel like here?
  • What does it smell like here?
  • Who comes here? Who stays away from here?
  • How many people live here?
  • What do they do?
  • How do they do it?
  • What are their rituals, habits, routines, traditions?
  • How do people live here?
  • Where do people live here?
  • What do they eat and drink? How is it grown? Where do they get their food?
  • Are there races, ethnic groups, or other signs of diversity?
  • Is there a class system? Social, justice, gender, ethnic, cultural, or economic? How do they interact and react to the world around them?
  • Who are the leaders?
  • What’s hot in the news and gossip columns here? What are people worried or talking about?
  • How do the people interact here? In the streets, cafes, plazas, town squares, virtually, meetings, social hours?
  • What are the laws? How do the laws impact the characters?
  • What happens when a law is broken?
  • Is this a stable society or one on the edge or dropped into chaos?
  • How was this place made? Immigration, governance, wars, etc.?
  • What’s the health of the place? Epidemics? Do the people have an active or inactive lifestyles?
  • How safe is the place?
  • What makes people feel safe or unsafe here? Why?
  • What are the philosophies that guide this society and community?
  • Is this community/society religious? How? Why?
  • How does this society’s infrastructure function? Are there roads? Who builds them? Garbage? Power? Housing?
  • What did it take to build this world?
  • If this world would come to an end, what would it take?

This is just a few of the questions to consider. Go through these, and the questions and suggestions offered in the resources below, then ask yourself: Could this scene happen anywhere else? How would it change? How would it change the characters? How would it change the story? See what happens.

Resources on World Building

One last bit of advice.

If you introduce something new to the world in which your characters live, ask yourself if this change their world. How does it? If it is magic or technology, does it impact only your characters or everyone in society? How? Why? Is it good, bad, or indifferent? How do they adapt to the change? is it good for everyone or just a few?

Remember, your characters live in the test tube of your imagination. Every twist or turn in the story may create a tsunami of change beyond the bubble that is your main characters. Let your readers see and feel the change.

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A Book Review

The following is by Writers in the Grove member, Bev Walker, based upon her review of the book, “Thieves Break In,” by Cristina Sumners, Bantam Books, 2004, a British detective story.

The following are the real, actual Chapter headings of this book.

Chapter 1 – Late July 1997, Wednesday – (In which we are introduced to the victim, one Rob Hillman, who is missing. The last sentence states he’s been found. So far, so good. I look forward to some interesting detective work.)

Chapter 2 – January 1997 – Almost Seven Months Before Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 3 – Summer 1933 – Sixty-four Years Before Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 4 – Wednesday – The Day of Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 5 – February 1997 – Five Months Before Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 6 – June 1944, Shortly After D-Day – Fifty-three Years Before Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 7 – Thursday – The Day After Rob Hillman’s Death, About Seven in the Evening

Chapter 8 – February 1997 – Five Months Before Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 9 – May 1945, Two Weeks After VE Day – Fifty-two Years Before Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 10 – Saturday Morning – Three Days After Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 11 – April 1997, During the Easter Holidays – Three Months Before Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 12 – June 1962 – Thirty-five Years Before Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 13 – Saturday Lunchtime – Three Days After Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 14 – Early July 1997 – Three Weeks Before Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 15 – July 1963 – Thirty-four Years Before Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 16 – Early July 1997, Sunday – Four Days After Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 17 – Mid July 1997 – Two Weeks Before Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 18 – Spring 1972 – Twenty-five Years Before Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 19 – Lunchtime – Five Days After Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 20 – The Monday Before Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 21 – Twenty Years Before Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 22 – Monday Midafternoon – Five Days After Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 23 – A Wednesday in Late July 1997 – Thirty Minutes Before Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 24 – Winter 1995 – Two Years Before Rob Hillman’s Death

Chapter 25 – Monday – Five Days After Rob Hillman’s Death, Three Hours After Sir Gregory’s Death

Chapter 26 – Minutes Later

Chapter 27 – A Few Minutes Earlier

Chapter 28 – Two Days Later (mystery solved!)

THE END

Dear Writers,

Now, I consider myself only a moderately orderly person. And a fan of detective stories. Especially British detective stories. Any detective story with a sense of humor, but this one really put me to the test.

I’m not adverse to scanning, and dumping, the dull, the witless, the inane. If it doesn’t grab me in the first three chapters, I may give it a spit and polish and go on to other things, but believe it or not, in spite of its time frame acrobatics, this one held me in there.

I read it all, clear to the end, while flipping back and forth to keep reminding myself which decade we were in. It was like trying to read on a bus traveling fifty miles an hour over a very bumpy road.

The author’s first acknowledgement is for her “splendid” Editor, and I quote: “for refraining from murdering me while I kept her waiting an extra year for the manuscript.” One wonders if that editor is still on the job. Or maybe in a rest home somewhere. Or waiting tables in a peaceful kindergarten where there’s regular food fights.

Nevertheless, dear readers, would you believe? This is a good story!

But please, dear writers, have some mercy.

NaNoWriMo Tips: Reverse Things

Your character is afraid of their own shadow. They creep through life trying to never disturb the dust of living, yet life still happens to them.

Write a scene like that with your character.

Then, throw the whole scene into reverse.

Write the same scene with your a brave, fearless personality at play, loving life, embracing anything thrown their way.

Which is the true definition of the character you want in your story? Is it one of these extremes or a compromise between the two.

Use this technique to not only learn more about your character, especially to identify strengths and weakness, but also to mix things up. Sometimes a brave and tough character has moments of fear, when they feel helpless and out of control. What would it take to make them feel that way? Might be an interesting part of your story.

You can find more writing tips, NaNoWriMo prompts, and writing tips for NaNoWriMo on our Writers in the Grove site.

November 26 Prompt – The Magnifying Glass

The following prompt is from one of our Writers in the Grove members for our NaNoWriMo prompt-a-day project for November 2016.

A little mystery prompt?

She picked up the large, gold magnifying glass from the desk.

Check out our list of prompts for even more inspiration.

NaNoWriMo Tips: Play with Time

Writers can make a moment last pages, even a whole chapter. Or they can make a sentence last a week.

As you work on your novel and stories, consider how you use time. Stretch it to make a moment last, compress it to add tension or skip the story ahead.

Consider adding a race against time element to your story. The clock is ticking and your hero has only so much time to accomplish the task and save everyone.

The groundbreaking television show 24 told the story in real-time, so to speak. Each hour increment in a 24 hour period represented 60 minutes of the story line. They even used a clock to help track the hour during each episode. It was an exciting story device that kept the viewer on the edge of their seat as the drama raced forward.

Doctor Who - the Stolen Earth screencap.

In Doctor Who, the Doctor and his companions and the other characters in the stories can shift between time within a few seconds not just on this planet, but across multiple planets and galaxies. In the finales of Season 4, the time traveling machine called the Tardis was controlled to dial through time, allowing the Doctor and Donna to watch an event that could take thousands or millions of years to complete, helping the viewer experience it with them, adding drama to the story line. In the book and BBC show, Johnny and the Bomb by Terry Pratchett, young kids discover a woman who can travel through time with a shopping cart, and go back and forth to World War II to prevent a bomb from exploding in their 1990s time period. Creative manipulation of time lines in stories is found everywhere, helping not only add drama, but to also help the reader understand what’s going on.

As you write, ensure the reader is with you on the passage of time. Do they track that it has been minutes or years between scenes? How have you made that clear?

It’s challenging to keep a reader on track with your creative manipulations of time. Flashbacks, backstory, dream sequences, future thoughts, movements of time between scenes…work it carefully, dragging the reader through the space time continuum.

Help them keep up with the time and the pace of your story, but have fun with how you use time.

You can find more writing tips, NaNoWriMo prompts, and writing tips for NaNoWriMo on our Writers in the Grove site.

NaNoWriMo Tips: How Many Ways to Write a Scene

A novel is a collection of scenes, held together by chapters. During NaNoWriMo, you will write dozens of scenes, each one adding to the plot, taking the reader, and your characters, on a journey.

Think about a single scene. How many ways can you write it?

Let’s set the stage. A woman is sitting in her car in rush hour traffic, going nowhere. The man in the car next to her turns his head and looks at her.

How many ways can we tell this story?

  • From the perspective of the woman?
  • From the perspective of the man?
  • From onlookers watching the two from their cars?
  • What if it is hot out and their windows are open?
  • What if it is cold and they have to wipe the condensation from the window to even see each other?
  • What if one of their cars has smoke or steam coming out from under the hood?
  • What if one has a coffee cup or a lunch bag on the roof of their vehicle?
  • What if one vehicle has a low tire?
  • What if one of the car is an expensive luxury car and the other isn’t?
  • What if one of them is poor and just evicted from their home and their car is their only safe place?
  • What if they know each other?
  • What if they knew each other as teenagers?
  • What if they are married?
  • What if they were married and just drove away from the lawyers office after signing the divorce papers, and each are the last person they want to see?
  • What if there is a dog in one car?
  • What if one of them is depressed?
  • What if one of them just got a raise and is overexcited?
  • What if one really likes the look of the other?

We could go on and on with all of the perspectives, points of view, and what ifs.

What if the scene is critical to the story, and you don’t want to go off on a bunch of wild “what if” theories. How could you tell the story differently and keep the story line the same?

  • What is the emotional state of the characters? Can you change one or both of them?
  • What is around them that they have to or might interact with? A gear shift? Squeaking brakes? The steering wheel? How would they handle it?
  • Use your senses. What do they smell, feel, temperature, body pains, body positions, hear, see? Which details add or subtract from the scene?
  • What if you threw another character into the mix? A person pops up in the backseat or someone honks behind them? How will each character respond?
  • Can you show the scene from the perspective of a memory?
  • What if they are anticipating seeing each other in traffic and it hasn’t happened?

Other than changing the location, time, and weather, brainstorm all the different ways you could write the scene and then pick from these when it is time to edit – in December.

You can find more writing tips, NaNoWriMo prompts, and writing tips for NaNoWriMo on our Writers in the Grove site.

NaNoWriMo Tips: The Thing in the Room

At a Willamette Writers Conference one year, Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, was a keynote. She spoke about how she will start writing a scene based upon elements found in the location she is writing about. While she might not use the item, this technique often helps her get her writing juices flowing through a series of questions and answers to describe the place, the moment, and the characters.

She spoke about how she collects auction house catalogs associated with the time period and cultural elements of her books. She will pull one out and flip through it, looking for things that could be in the room with her character. In her example, she chose an amber crystal vase.

In her mind, she put it in the room, but had to debate with herself where in the room it should go. On the window sill? On a shelf? On the desk? She chose the desk.

What color amber was it? Was it deep or light colored? Where was the light coming from that illuminated it, or was it in the shadows? She chose the light coming from the window shining on it.

If the light was coming from the window, then what time of day was it? Where was the light positioned? What color was the light? Was it strong or filtered? What was outside that would block the light, or be clear for the light to pass through?

Returning to the vase, she looked at it in her mind. Why would it be on the desk? Did it have historical significance? Personal significance? Who put it there? Was it the main character, the spouse, housekeeper, or possibly a decorator and it had no significance at all to the character? If it had significance, what is its story?

What is it made of? Is it truly crystal from stone or cut from glass? Who made it? Does it matter who made it to the character or the story?

Is it on a pedestal or plate or just sitting on the desk? What is the desk made of? Why? Was that a good material to choose? Where is there light on the desk? From outside or is there a lamp? What kind of lamp? Where is it? What fuels it? What does it look like…

Where is the character? Is he sitting at the desk? Standing next to it? Is he looking at the object? Why? What does he see when he looks at it? What does it remind him of? What is he thinking as he looks at it?

You get the picture, and that is what she does, she creates the picture from an object and keeps going, testing it out on the character, fleshing out the scene in and around the object. It isn’t about the object but the object helps to define the scene and the character, making the scene come alive through this brainstorming series of questions, each one building upon the other.

Think of a thing in the scene with your character and go through the same process. Keep asking questions, building the scene piece by piece, including light, sound, texture, pattern, smells, all the elements around the character, then paint that picture with your words.

You can find more writing tips, NaNoWriMo prompts, and writing tips for NaNoWriMo on our Writers in the Grove site.